BURLINGTON, NC (January 22, 2012) – Drive around Alamance, Guilford or Orange Counties, and, if you likely notice a common sight: Alamance Community College (ACC) student parking stickers on the windows and bumpers of more than 5,000 vehicles.
Nearly all of these students interact with the College’s website during enrollment periods, and the vast majority frequent the site multiple times per week during the school year, checking schedules, accessing student portals, referencing faculty directories and more. In addition to traffic from current students, the site is also the first point of contact for thousands of prospective students considering their education and career advancement options. Faculty and staff also rely on the site to connect with their students and constituents. And the regional business community navigates the website to learn more about training programs and best-practice seminars and certifications.
In late 2011, it became apparent to ACC’s leadership that the website was in need of a serious overhaul to keep pace with the needs and expectations of its various user groups. The Alamance Community College website had become the hub of information for campus life, and the site’s technology, navigation and aesthetics had long outlived their intended use.
“The ACC website was cobbled together 13 years ago by a College IT employee,” said Edward Williams, ACC Director of Public Information and Marketing. “It was outdated in both design and function, and it was internally focused, serving the needs of faculty and staff more than our primary audience – our students and prospective students.”
This reality caused Dr. Martin H. Nadelman, ACC President, to set in motion a major website development project. Steered by Williams, the College established a project committee and develop a screening and bidding process, interviewing eight vendors for the project.
“After reviewing several website vendors, the screening committee was most comfortable with the process North Star planned to follow, particularly the inclusive nature of the design and content phases, as well as the repetitive feedback loops built into the process,” said Williams. “North Star also displayed a curiosity and energy level in its presentation lacking in other vendor interviews and demonstrated the strongest commitment to the College’s mission.”
For the Alamance Community College website project, North Star used a proven research-based approach, conducting an extensive discovery process that gathered data from the College’s various audience segments: faculty, staff, students, alumni, business partners and the broader community.
According to President Nadelman, in the College’s website announcement, “From a customer service standpoint, it was important that the College invest significant time listening to its core constituents and focusing on enhancing the experience for them.”
“The in-depth discovery process was essential to the success of the project,” said North Star Principal Andy Lynch. “We realized that there were a lot of stakeholders who had opinions and ideas that needed to be heard. In order to really understand how to build a site that would work for a wide audience, we had to make a significant research investment on the front end.”
There were numerous organizations on campus that wanted to have a say in how their information would be presented on the College’s website. North Star’s Content Developer Elizabeth Travers spent many hours on campus in the discovery phase, talking to department and program heads about their needs. “The information I received enabled our design and programming teams to have a high degree of clarity on what the users expected to see on the site,” Travers said.
By the end of the project, more than seven North Star team members had touched the project, and each one relied on the findings from the discovery process to direct his/her specific area of work.
Throughout the discovery phase, faculty and staff members expressed a need to be hands-on with the website. “The old site did not allow faculty members to login and post updates without assistance from the IT staff or a programmer,” Lynch said. “Over a 13-year period, a lot of content had become woefully out of date, and a significant amount of information had never been posted, simply because of a technical bottleneck.”
North Star implemented the WordPress content management system to remove the technical barrier. “This approach makes it possible for department heads at ACC to login to the site and post updates without having any technical expertise,” Travers said. “In today’s web world, the ability to update your own section of the website is baseline functionality in academic websites.”
The WordPress tools allow ACC to create new pages, post news items and calendar events, upload photo galleries, create new department sections and more.
North Star’s delivery process including several days of on-site training to teach website users to how to maintain their sections of the site.
A consistent theme during the early interviews was the need for easier access to academic program and course information, which were only accessible on the old website via a large PDF file of the annual catalog and via WebAdvisor, a complex third-party course registration system.
Academic division heads emphasized the need for the catalog to be user-friendly and searchable, allowing users to bypass large file downloads and eliminating the need for prospective students to use WebAdvisor at all.
North Star Marketing Senior Programmer Ryan Cardwell worked with members of the ACC Information Technology department to implement a dynamic framework for the program and course information. The finished product was an intuitive, interactive program page that allows users to view:
- curriculum plans
- program descriptions
- degree offerings
- course schedules
- career information
- faculty contact info
- course descriptions
In total, North Star produced 15 custom page templates to meet ACC’s content needs. The templates will enable people who are not programmers to upload specific content within their areas of responsibility.
“The template system is user-friendly and versatile,” said Cardwell. “We knew that each department and division within ACC would be editing their own content, so we wanted a system that would be robust enough to accommodate the complexity of their content but simple enough to allow for non-technical editing. WordPress excels in this area. The template system allows users to determine the page type and edit only the fields pertaining to that page. It’s really the backbone of the site’s functionality.”
Rather than relying on stock photography to portray campus life, the new website invites users to see Alamance Community College from an insider’s perspective. Custom photography, shot over the course of five days by North Star’s Creative Director Robert McDorman, was an important deliverable for the new website. On the homepage, visitors see current students in classrooms, interacting with each other and engaging technology. Throughout the site, large photos highlight ACC’s campus, including new buildings, courtyards and other beautiful spaces where students can congregate.
Williams and the Alamance Community College marketing team welcomed the opportunity to update the school’s photo gallery: “The new Web design gave the College an opportunity to improve our visuals, while providing a professional look consistent with the design of the new website.”
Custom photography populates the primary marketing areas of the site – including homepage rotators, promos and features, and interior page headers. Built with multi-site capability, the website allows departments and programs to populate page headers with photography directly related to their disciplines, creating consistency across both messaging and visuals.
“Beautiful photographs communicate much faster than words,” said McDorman. “A high quality image can communicate mission, culture, ‘voice’ and values without ‘saying’ a thing. While photos eventually need strong messaging to support and explain, their strength lies in their ability to engage and hold user attention long enough to digest the messaging.”
The Final Product
Working closely with the on-campus IT team, North Star launched the new Alamance Community College website on December 3, 2012. The polished, professional image projected by updated site aesthetics, clear navigation structure and vibrant photography was well received by the student body and ACC staff.
“The new site is designed to facilitate campus life within the ACC community, affirm the school’s role as a significant contributor to the region’s economy, and attract new students looking for a quality education at a reasonable price,” Travers said. “It was a delight to be able to help ACC improve its online presence and better serve its students.”
So, just how far does the new Alamance Community College website reach? Just one month after launch, the site registered 82,000 visits, 36,000 of which were unique. As the college ramps up its spring semester, visitor counts are expected to mount even higher.
About North Star Marketing
Based in Burlington, North Carolina, North Star Marketing is a full-service marketing strategy and creative services firm, providing branding, website development, print collateral design, advertising, public relations and online marketing to businesses, non-profits and schools. For more information about our integrated-communications services, please contact us at 336-229-6610.